Review by S. Leigh Hall
Virginia Pillars writes with utmost honesty in this award-winning memoir about the trials suffered by her family facing a diagnosis of schizophrenia in an adult child. By the end of the first chapter, I identified with Virginia and her husband Roy in the confusion and pain they experienced. Not only does Pillars have to face her daughter’s illness, she also has to fight to find medical and legal assistance necessary to save her. It is a story that resonates with any family facing the serious illness of a child. Pillars’ beautiful narration brings the reader with her as she witnesses her daughter fall deeper and deeper into a “broken brain” world where Amber doesn’t feel safe, where she has retreated inside herself.
The central conflict is the struggle to recognize and accept the situation of her daughter’s illness. Pillars must find the strength, through faith, hope, and love of God, to lead her child to a life she can live as a normal, independent adult. However, layers of disbelief, denial, anger, and betrayal mark the roller coaster ride that begins December 9, 2004.
It is a typical day as Pillars is finishing Christmas orders at her embroidery business while her farmer husband works in the fields with his brothers. A more appropriate reference to normalcy couldn’t be written than the instant the cell phone begins to sing, “Old MacDonald had a Farm.” The person calling is Amber’s coworker requesting Mrs. Pillars call her daughter who is not “acting like herself today.”
She immediately calls, but Amber asks her to call later when she finishes with work. I can’t help thinking that mother’s intuition takes over as Pillars ruminates over incidences out of character for her daughter that happened at the annual family Thanksgiving celebrations. Finally, at 4 pm, Pillars calls again and in hearing the whispered sobs of her daughter, recognizes an anguished plea for help. She quickly drives (speeds) to the town where Amber lives over an hour away, to bring her daughter home for the weekend, not realizing that her daughter will never return to that apartment.
A day by day journal account through the next few weeks reveals continuous degeneration in Amber’s mental state to the extent that both parents feel like prisoners in their own home as they struggle to protect their daughter from herself. To make matters worse, they must also protect others from Amber as family members are verbally abused during her escalating psychotic episodes. Pillars and her husband pray together as a couple. They pray with Amber who seemingly finds comfort in the Rosary. And Pillars prays alone while trying to understand what is happening and wondering when and how this will end.
Finally, as the family is in danger of falling apart and they realize they must take action, they hear what have to be chilling words from a doctor’s receptionist when seeking help for an adult child. “She has to be a danger to herself or others in order to receive treatment without her consent…” Amber, in her confused state, is fearful of the doctors and the medicine they say she needs. She refuses to give her consent or stay in the hospital. Following an incident when Amber locks herself in the bathroom with a pack of matches and after a physical confrontation with her father when she pushes him, they have proof of her danger to herself and others. Her oldest sibling Mitchell helps get the commitment to hospitalize Amber.
Schizophrenia is a difficult mental illness to diagnose according to NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Diagnosis of schizophrenia involves ruling out other mental health disorders and determining that symptoms are not due to substance abuse. In Amber’s case, the Pillars family must work with different doctors, counselors, and hospitals over a period of months until they are finally given the reason for their daughter’s outbursts and paranoia.
Throughout the book, there are moments of hope for recovery only to be dashed when Amber’s delusions, such as believing she carries the second messiah, send the roller coaster crashing down. After Amber doesn’t respond to the medications prescribed by her doctors, she is given Haldol, an older antipsychotic that causes terrible side effects. The medicine works, but the psychiatrist who makes the diagnosis of schizophrenia informs them the next two years will be difficult for all of them.
I could not help but commiserate with the frustration and anger experienced by the Pillars family as they work with the legal and medical community. First, they must get a judge to agree to the hospital commitment. Then they must get a court order for the medication Amber needs because she continues to fight the doctors. Once that happens, the parents discover that the medicine is not started immediately, and they are the ones to tell the nurse there is a court order. Recognizing that Amber isn’t getting better at one hospital, the doctors decide that she should go to another, more specialized one farther from her home. Unfortunately, there are no beds available. In the meantime, they must return to court to petition for guardianship so they can pay Amber’s increasing debt.
Pillars speaks candidly of her conversations with God about the fairness of Amber’s suffering. She freely shares her questioning of God’s presence and how she purposely takes steps to build a stronger prayer life as well as a support system with family and friends. She expresses her feelings of betrayal and guilt as she and her husband take total control of their daughter’s independence. Through the grief and pain, she recognizes that God is with her always, and her job is to completely trust in Him.
I admire this author who shares her life as an advocate for families who struggle with mental illness in a loved one. Pillar’s story continues as her daughter is eventually able to return to a normal life. At the same time, she knows that this is a condition that needs to be monitored for the rest of Amber’s life. And as if the diagnosis of mental illness isn’t enough to handle, Pillars and her husband deal simultaneously with multiple crises in other family members that at one point caused her to cry out, “Oh, God, help me. I’m breaking’ I can feel it. I’m breaking.”
For anyone who struggles with mental illness in a loved one, this is a book of hope. It is a book with resources where families can find help. It is a book I recommend for all parents with suffering children as it reminds us that we are never alone.
Author’s Website: https://virginiapillars.wordpress.com/
Genre: Nonfiction, Memoir
Catholic Themes: Prayer, Relationships, Dependence on God, Faith, Hope, Support Groups, Mental Illness, Recovery, Schizophrenia, NAMI
Year Published: 2016
Author’s Worldview: Catholic